The last few straws that the Washington Nationals had been clutching in the past few weeks may have finally slipped out of their grip this weekend.
The team’s General Manager, Mike Rizzo, spoke with reporters last Tuesday about how the front office was preparing to handle the upcoming trade deadline when the team was 44-49 and six games back from the New York Mets in the National League East at the time.
“I think a dual path is probably the most advantageous for us right now,” Rizzo explained, as quoted by The Athletic’s Maria Torres.
“We’ll have our lines in the water on the buy-side. We’ll also prepare some type of sell scenario if we have to. But we’re looking forward to playing better baseball for the next two weeks and see if we can creep closer to the New York Mets and see if we can make some noise in the National League East.
“We will deal with the trade deadline closer to the trade deadline… I think we’ll utilize that (time) to see where we’re at, how we’re playing, what type of momentum we have going forward, and where we’re at in the standings.”
Almost a week has passed, the deadline is now just a matter of days away, and things have quickly spiraled out of control for the Nats, who have won just one out of the five games since.
If the Nationals were looking for a clear sign about which direction to take at the deadline, the three-game sweep at the hands of the Baltimore Orioles was the equivalent of a plane writing the letters “S-E-L-L” in the sky above Camden Yards.
“This is a tough time of the year for players, I can tell you that,” Nationals skipper, Dave Martinez, said after the team’s series in Baltimore.
“Everyone is worried about getting traded, everybody is hearing rumors. We need to focus on staying present, that’s what we need to do. And focus on winning one game at a time, and go out there and do your best to win for the Nats.”
It’s an unfamiliar position for the Nationals who are so used to winning since Rizzo took over as GM of the team in 2009, including that elusive World Series title less than two years ago.
Even in the disappointing 2018 season, the Nationals were just 5.5 games out of first place as the trade deadline passed and 5.0 games out of a National League Wild Card spot.
That season, they essentially stood pat at the end of July. However, according to Jorge Castillo then of The Washington Post, Rizzo actually had trades lined up to sell at the deadline, including star outfielder Bryce Harper, until ownership vetoed those plans.
They did eventually trade away some expiring contracts via waiver trades later in August, though it was more of a last-gasp attempt to get anything for those players to try and get below the luxury tax threshold before the end of the season.
The last time the Nationals truly sold at the now-defunct non-waiver trade deadline was in 2010 when they dealt away Matt Capps and Cristian Guzmán, netting, most notably, Wilson Ramos and Tanner Roark as a result of those trades.
Now, with the team at 45-53 and eight games behind the Mets, it looks as though they may be heading towards trading away pieces again at this year’s deadline.
It’s not always as simple as just stating that a team is a seller though. Who is actually going to get dealt? Do they just trade away expiring contracts? Or is it something more wholesale?
We’ll find out in the next few days, but now, with the Nationals likely becoming sellers, it shakes up a trade market that had perhaps been lacking depth in the build-up to the deadline.
Relievers Brad Hand and Daniel Hudson are two of the most likely players to be traded away this week.
Both are in the midst of solid seasons while on expiring contracts and just about every team in contention at this point in the season could do with additional arms in the bullpen.
If there’s a market, Josh Harrison could be a nice rental for a contender as a solid utility man.
Maybe the Nationals could float Yan Gomes and Kyle Schwarber out there despite both being on the IL to see if a team wants to take a gamble — though Schwarber does have a mutual option that has a chance to get picked up, which makes that decision tougher.
The million-dollar question, however, is whether the Nationals will trade Max Scherzer or not.
First off, Scherzer isn’t going anywhere unless he approves, thanks to his 10-5 no-trade rights. So, if the three-time Cy Young winner is going to leave via trade, it will need to be a collaborative decision between him and the Nationals, the team can’t just flip him.
Then there’s the public perception side of things that comes with trading a true franchise icon who will likely be the first to be enshrined at Cooperstown with a Curly-W on his hat.
A player of Scherzer’s stature should command a significant return, but would it be enough to convince the team and its ownership, who would undoubtedly have a say in any trade involving Scherzer, to actually deal him? That will only become clearer later this week.
What is clear right now is that this version of the Nationals has squandered too many chances to claw themselves back into contention and has run out of time to wait things out and see if they can turn things around when players return from injury.
Their play on the field in the lead-up to the trade deadline now leaves the front office with only one sensible course of action. It’s time for them to try and at least salvage some prospects who can help in future seasons, as it’s clear this one won’t end in playoff baseball...